Israeli-born Miri Ben-Ari came to the United States in the late 1990s with no money, no friends and unable to speak English. But the classically trained violinist was determined to make her mark on the music industry.
With the release of her album “The Hip-Hop Violinist,” Ben-Ari saw her years of hard work pay off. The album debuted at No. 10 last week on Billboard’s Top Heatseekers chart.
Ben-Ari was literally raised on classical music, but found a new musical direction in her late teens.
“My parents only listened to classical, so I was never exposed to anything else,” Ben-Ari says. “I had to discover things on my own. One day by accident I bought a jazz album by Charlie Parker and I realized there was another form of improvisation, and that was it. Classical don’t groove like jazz or hip-hop, and I’m very groove oriented. It was very difficult [to leave classical behind], but it was something I had to do.”
After serving a mandatory two-year stink in the Israeli Army, the violinist moved to New York to study jazz. It was there that she found her true calling. While working the club circuit, she began making friends with the likes of Wynton Marsalis and Wyclef Jean. Those connections quickly snowballed and she found herself arranging and playing strings for such artists as Alicia Keys and Kanye West.
Ben-Ari credits her time in the army as giving her the motivation to learn the skills that got her to where she is today.
“The army gave me the strength to leave the classical world behind,” she says. “All the discipline and the whole concept of being one with such a great and powerful machine, I wasn’t Miri Ben-Ari the violinist, I was just another soldier. It really humbles you but when you get out of there you have the illusion that you can do anything. Coming out of the army gives you the power to think you’re the s***.”
That attitude helped her build many partnerships in the industry, so it was easy for her to assemble a high-profile hip-hop roster for “The Hip-Hop Violinist.” Ben-Ari doesn’t sing on any of the album’s tracks, but instead features a rotating cast of performers, including West, Akon and Style P, among others.
“It was very organic, since I worked with many of the people before,” she says of the collaborations. “Certain people were perfect for certain songs. Like I wanted Styles P to be on [the first single, ‘We Gonna Win’]. It’s the first song in hip-hop history where a violinist is taking a verse like a rapper — Styles takes his verse and then I take my verse.”
Although Ben-Ari loves being in the spotlight, the idea of stepping out from behind the violin and singing isn’t very appealing to her.
“I believe that everything you do needs to be your forte,” she says. “Therefore, just singing because I want to sing doesn’t mean that I’ll be the greatest vocalist ever. I have a musical ear and I’m not going to do anything that’s not my forte. Besides, no one has ever said to me, ‘Yo, I wish you sang.’ I made the violin my voice.”
Along with just a DJ and an MC, Ben-Ari’s unusual stage presence has been captivating hip-hop audiences across the country.
“I blew up because of my live show,” she notes. “It’s something that you have to see to believe. People always come out of my show and say it’s the best thing they have ever seen. Then people learn about me being so original and so different — I’m the first hip-hop violinist. It’s just so unique and it takes a lot of guts to have a career that breaks all the rules about how you’re supposed to play as a violinist.”
Miri Ben-Ari is currently on tour with Busta Rhymes.
Artist site: www.miribenari.com
Label site: www.universalrecords.com